Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Reinventing Cultural Studies: Remembering for the Best Version" by Richard Johnson – article review and summary

In his 1997 "Reinventing Cultural Studies: Remembering for the Best Version" Richard Johnson returns to his programmatic pursuit of Cultural Studies which he first started a decade before in his "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?". This time Richard Johnson is after what he calls the "best" version of Cultural Studies. While "best" might (and should) sound suspicious to the cultural studies trained ear, what Richard Johnson is going for is abandoning the view of Cultural Studies as intergraded discipline in favor of treating it as a "process" occurring in the interdisciplinary membrane and the academy's relation to politics. "reinventing Cultural Studies" for Richard Johnson is far from a one-time plea for reforming the field, it is rather a descriptive and at the same time normative insight at how the field of Cultural Studies should and is conducting itself constantly.

Johnson is equating "reinventing" with "remembering". And while nostalgia is without a doubt a theme in "Reinventing Cultural Studies", Richard Johnson also has some currently relevant questions about his beloved field, which is not a field at all, so he argues. Instead Johnson takes a view on Cultural Studies as being "marginal" in the academic sphere. This is for a few reasons, starting with Cultural Studies' origins outside the academy in working-class adult education. In other words, the cultural formations which interest Cultural Studies and also present in its identity as an academic movement (with working-class, women, black and gay reaserchers). Another thing that contributes to Cultural Studies' troubled relationship with the academy (and with itself as an academic venture) is its age old suspicion of any "academic knowledge". Another part of Cultural Studies' identity that Richard Johnson mentions is its affiliation with student movements in the 70's. 
This means that political activism has always been an inseparable part of Cultural Studies. The legacy of 1968 has left its mark on Cultural Studies for decades to come, and this is something that for Johnson sets it apart of the academic world which for the most part sought to dull these effects. One major characteristic of Cultural Studies that Johnson mentions in this context is the highly democratic fashion in which Cultural Studies departments, especially CCCS, functions. The work of research and writing subgroups free from staff agenda is for Johnson one of the key features of this democratic nature of Cultural Studies, for its decentralizing effects while still sustaining a common language. All this, Johnson argues, has been somewhat lost over the years, and this is what he wants Cultural Studies to remember in order to constantly reinvent itself.

Cultural Studies and the academia
Cultural Studies' interest with "lived" experiences of social and cultural formations which go hand in hand with transforming them is what made it possible for the CCCS to coexist with the academy which it criticized for being paternalistic, hierarchic and individualist. Still, Johnson does not fail to mention the Cultural Studies view that "academic institutions are exclusive and oppressive because they have institutionalized the agenda and preferences of particular social groups and gave them the universal or general knowledges and practices" (p.456). Here Cultural Studies is parted with the academy for its race, gender and class diversity of students and teachers, thus avoiding discriminations.  
This "general" or "universal" forms of knowledge that Cultural Studies go against are replaced with "commonsense" or "popular" takes of cultural reality. In "common" Johnson is referring to the "alternative": subcultures, women, ethnic minorities, queer etc. this approach yielded some problems for Johnson, problems he claims are characteristic for Cultural Studies, with its awareness of politics and tendency to route for the underdog turning into inner conflicts and ambivalence for "insofar as cultural studies becomes a representational space for marginalized positions, it cannot be comfortable in the academy, old or new style" (p.459).  This means that practitioners of Cultural Studies often have to compromise academic ambitions for other political agendas and goals. On the larger scale, Cultural Studies have to reconcile their often subversive tendencies with the need for acceptability, respect and most importantly funding.   

Cultural Studies and politics
So what comes first for Cultural Studies? Is scholarship more important that politics? Or is it the other way around? This is one of the main questions facing Cultural Studies, manifested in the tension between theory and practice. Richard Johnson's answer is that the academic world is in itself a site of political struggle, thus qualifying Cultural Studies with both its contradicting natures. For him denying the power of academic politics is in fact succumbing to it. However the academic pressure for isolating scholar work from other occupations, especially political one, is something Cultural Studies obviously can't live with and must struggle against. So Cultural Studies faces a double front – one within the academic world and one in its ties with "actual" political battles.

The social/textual split
Cultural Studies were never too fond of boundaries, not ones between disciplines or between academy and other political sites.  With Cultural Studies situated somewhere between the humanities and social sciences the "textualization" of culture becomes a problem. A tension between the literary and sociological paradigm is what Johnson sees as the manifestation of this problem. These paradigmatic differences are related by Johnson to "different moments in the circuit of cultural production and consumption" (p.463). It seems two traditions are converged in Cultural Studies, that of the formalist structural/poststructural "textual" type and that of the more socially inclined legacy of Marxism.

Johnson describes the transformation of text from an end of analysis to a means for engagement with larger historical cultural formations. But the textual realm is not sufficient and very much limited if other "sites", such as economy for example, are not taken into account. However, when an expansionist view is taking to the question of what is "text" for Cultural Studies and the Derrida notion of "there exists nothing outside the text" is adopted, things begin to be more closely fitting to Cultural Studies' agenda. Language, consequently, is not just words, written or spoken, it is also visual representations that are treated as text, behavior, taste, design and virtually everything human can be "read" with the aid of linguistic terminology such as "discourse".

Richard Johnson addresses the eclectic methodological tradition of Cultural Studies by simply stating that "there is no available mapping of methods in Cultural Studies – virtually no methodology in that sense" (p.467). This leads to Cultural Studies' ability to transgress traditional discipline boundaries and also turn its critical attention to disciplines themselves while not having to adhere to methodology determined truth claims. Therefore Cultural Studies is often satisfied with discussion arousing criticism, not claims of truth of concrete knowledge. On the other hand, Johnson makes sure to note the dangers of not only amateurism but also old-school amateurism with a favorable social stance. In addition, Johnson takes special consideration to structure following the tradition of Gramsci and Foucault, with "structure" often translated into "relations of force". The multi- or parallel-structuring of societies allows for the creation of "condensed" cultural objects which bear meaning that relates to numerous cultural phenomena that can be analyzed through it. Johnson sums up by stating that "the familiar issues of "representativeness", "reliability" and "validity" do not altogether disappear here, but they certainly have to be reformulated" (p.469).

Limits of the textual turn
Johnson, however, is not completely at ease with the textual turn in Cultural Studies. One reason for this concern it that although everything is text, what is usually being read in Cultural Studies research is in written form and oftentimes the cannon, thus recycling dominant forms. This leads to what Johnson terms the "positionalities" of Cultural Studies researchers which determine the type of works they produce. These positionalities might tend to reconfirm or universalize certain points of view and theoretical frameworks.  
Another problem with textuality that Johnson mentions is that of political agency, and the difficulties of accounting for it in structural and poststructural theories. In the relation between means of production and conditions of production, Cultural Studies are having a hard time in accounting for the actual act and actor of producing without moving away from the literary frameworks and towards more materialistic approaches.
Johnson states that Cultural Studies should not aim at overtaking the whole academic field by bringing down disciplinary boarders, it should, however, exist in the interdisciplinary membrane and "occupy thresholds" between disciplines and paradigms.

Cultural Studies' relation to other sites
Cultural Studies, as a deeply political movement, interacts with non-academic agendas by more or less importing questions and issues and exporting ways of thinking about them. Therefore Cultural Studies should not just accumulate knowledge for its own sake and interest. Johnson Believes that Cultural Studies have for the most part failed, or were insufficient in this respect of extra-academic political involvement that was fulfilled mostly with graduates that moved on to become politicians of journalists.
Johnson notes that it is hard to assess the overall impact of Cultural Studies on culture itself, but he believes that it "had more effect on popular consciousness and practice than we allow ourselves to believe" (p.475). Another question posed in this context is whether Cultural Studies are a sort of supportive by-product of political movements? For Johnson there is no simple answer, nor is there an answer to how much Cultural Studies actually benefited those that is sought to help.

In the last part of "Reinventing Cultural Studies: Remembering for the Best Version" Richard Johnson talks about his disappointment from the Cultural Studies' success in influencing popular politics, mostly notably economic policies which have not turned less capitalist over the years since the start of Cultural Studies. The struggle here is against reductionism of questions of power to economy, thus, for Johnson, "a central question for me today is how hegemonic groups and institutions in the world – mainly male and white –are sustained in the impossible belief that the policies they pursue can ever create a viable, livable social and natural world" (p. 478).  One interesting question is this respect is who should carry out the needed reforms in the political and social workings of power, and more specifically, where should Cultural Studies operate, is it in political parties and organizations, or maybe the para-political field of journalism, NGO's, education etc.?. After ruling out the academy as an end in its own rite, Johnson also refutes the need of Cultural Studies to enter the political arena of formal parties. Rather, Cultural Studies for Johnson should operate in education, social movements.